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Young Star

Going gypset

- Nicola M. Sebastian -

MANILA, Philippines - My sister once told me — after having traveled around Mexico for a couple of months, much to my parents’ chagrin — that anyone who backpacks for longer than a year or two is usually more than a little odd. An offhand comment probably, never meant to be quoted with or without her consent, but it does say something about the kind of person that seeks the open road, refusing to stay in one place for long.

And yeah, maybe it does take a little inner crazy to break away from the snug warmth of home and set out with only a few belongings on your back and a faraway destination in your head. But if so, there seems to be a emerging strain of crazy in our traveling youth of today, who don’t just settle for the road less taken, but insist on cutting themselves a swath through the jungle all their own.

I’m talking about the kind of people who trek to hidden beaches and prefer to go solo when exploring a place like India. The kind of people who wouldn’t blink an eye at an overnight bus ride through the Sierra Madre or a squat toilet. They ask: Why work on your tan in ‘Fuego when you can surf your heart out in Zamba? Why shop in Hong Kong when you can follow the Banana Pancake trail to age-old temples, river tubing, and bottomless Bintang beer? US writer Julia Chaplin baptized them “gypsetters” in her book Gypset Style (old-world gypsies + modern jetsetters = gyp-setters, get it?).

They’re easy enough to spot, these gypsetters. An itinerary plotted through ever-changing status messages and Facebook albums of off-centered self portraits with exotic backgrounds is the usual giveaway, though a reputation for going MIA at any weekend obligation, and more than a week’s worth of unanswered calls or emails are also possible signs. A casual conversation with one such gyp-setter is usually telling within the first couple of minutes.

Talking with Bea Misa, who runs a social enterprise that supports native, community-run industries out of her store in the Collective, the new hipster haunt in Makati, is a pretty good example. “Once I slept in an Indian desert and on my way back out I had to use the restroom. The driver (who was on opium) stopped at a random village, which happened to be preparing for a wedding, and soon enough practically the whole village was surrounding me,” remembers Bea. “They took me to a small room and laid out a mini-feast before me. Then they asked me all sorts of questions about culture, life, etc. One person in the village knew rudimentary English. And then they put music on and we started to dance. At the end, the brother of the future groom asked me to marry him! It was weird.”

For Kaz Castillo, a yoga instructor/writer/English teacher living in Boracay, her most memorable trips always seem to be the simplest. “Staying in a spooky house under construction one funny night in Tagaytay; trying to split the cost of a coin-operated hostel shower with a friend somewhere in France; camping out in a tent in Glastonbury the year that rains turned the music festival into a giant mudslide; or getting caught up in the dark while hiking in the rice terraces of Batad, where we had to beg locals to help rescue us back to our corrugated tin inn, seem to stand out more in my memory than the luxury holidays.”

And there are many more where that came from. Naturally, some may wonder why on earth people choose to do things the hard way. For Erika Briones, a freelance writer who divides her year between Manila and Siargao, it’s all about perspective — and a case of itchy feet. “I don’t want to grow old knowing only one type of culture, one set of traditions, one kind of lifestyle,” she says. “I also find that I can only stay in one place for so long.”

The socially-concerned Bea is another who believes in an education — satisfying her curiosity about patterns of life with anything from studying the effects of modernization to “looking at how people use the same plants/fruits in different ways.” But for Kaz the yoga teacher, the true lessons come from within. “While I was in England as a UC Berkeley exchange student, I wrote a paper about how, in travel, we go away from what we know, from what is familiar, to truly discover who we are. The further away you go, the more you discover about yourself, the root of who you are.” She pauses before adding: “There’s more spontaneity, more adventure in the simpler route. You don’t know what you’re going to get — and the fun part is finding out!”

For myself, I know that surfing has allowed me to experience and know more about my own country than more than a decade’s worth of living here. I’ve gotten drunk at a barbeque with Baler locals, taken midnight buses to Pagudpud, haggled at a La Union wet market, ridden on motorcycles in Siargao, explored islands and coves off the coast of Zambales, and that’s all just standard fare for any surfer stuck in Manila.

Whatever it all means, it’s obvious that technology has played its part in giving birth to this new generation of gypsetters.

 The rise of budget airlines and all-in ticket promos, helped along by the Internet’s overwhelming offer of information, has made travel accessible to all and fun for many. As affordable travel opens our doors to the entire country and the rest of the world, a flood of souvenir shops, package tours, mega hotel chains, and top-ten-must-see/try/do lists have rushed in and set up shop. And as travel continues to become a huge, ever-expanding industry, it becomes formulaic, falling victim to the ultra-efficiency and instant convenience of corporate capitalism.

For some people, printed itineraries, tour guides, and those cute, matching hats just don’t hit the spot. And so the gypset lifestyle is their answer.

Another deciding factor is the line of work that these gypsetters choose for themselves. A freelance writer, a yoga instructor and a social entrepreneur: all pursuing careers that put them in charge of their own time, allowing them to work — and play — as they like.

“Freelancing lets me do more things and be more things,” offers Erika. “Freelancers already know this: you have no boss, you can take as many breaks as you like, take on as little or as much work as you can, you can wake up whenever, you can work wherever.”

When the only thing driving you is your own passion and expectations, when you alone set the pace, sometimes the fruits are all the more ripe with inspiration. “If you think clearly, you can find a path that will meet your needs,” maintains Kaz, who’s been getting back into freelance writing, aside from her yoga and private tutoring gigs. “All that I’m doing now are highly personal efforts. I could pack up and continue what I’m doing anywhere and I find something really comforting in that. Perhaps that’s my new definition of work stability.”

After all is said and done, gypset isn’t just a travel option, it’s a way of life. More than just a severe case of geographical A.D.D., it’s about daring yourself to claim the life you really want. In a day and age where technology allows us to bring our work with us like never before, freelancing is a promising option to consider in the pursuit of such a freedom.

But there’s more to take home from all this than a sense of wanderlust, or envy, even. One doesn’t have to travel very far to find adventure — just going out your front door can be enough. At the end of the day, all it takes is an open mind and a ready heart to discover something new, and the trick is to never stop looking.

BANANA PANCAKE

BEA

BEA MISA

FOR ERIKA BRIONES

FOR KAZ CASTILLO

GYPSET STYLE

MDASH

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